Hundreds of people have been killed in Malawi and neighbouring Mozambique after one of the longest and most powerful tropical storms ever recorded ravaged a swath of southern Africa.
Malawian authorities were on Thursday struggling to mount search and rescue operations after Cyclone Freddy swept away villages, wrecked power lines and inflicted significant damage to Blantyre, the country’s second-biggest city.
Malawi’s president Lazarus Chakwera declared two weeks of official mourning for the “national tragedy”, which follows the country’s deadliest cholera outbreak that killed more than a thousand people.
A least 225 people in Malawi had been confirmed dead from the cyclone that had displaced more than 80,000 people, the government said. Dozens of people were killed in Mozambique.
Cyclone Freddy has put the spotlight back on the threat to southern Africa from more powerful storms and intense rains linked to climate change.
The tropical storm hit Madagascar and Mozambique after a prolonged build-up since it first emerged off the coast of Australia in early February. It made landfall again over the weekend, striking Mozambique, before hitting Malawi.
Freddy accumulated the most energy of any cyclone recorded in the southern hemisphere during its lengthy gestation, according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation. The agency is assessing whether it has also broken the record for the world’s longest-lasting tropical storm. It is one of very few cyclones in recorded history to have crossed the full width of the Indian Ocean.
Scientists have been warning that powerful cyclones will strike southern Africa more frequently as climate change warms the waters of the Indian Ocean, leaving more heat to create stronger storms.
“Climate change is elevating risk in places where tropical cyclones are already affecting agriculture, infrastructure, livelihoods and lives,” the World Weather Attribution project said in a study of the increase in cyclone activity in southern Africa.
In the wake of 2019’s Cyclone Idai, which killed more than 1,000 people across Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, there was investment in early warning systems across the region.
However, many have pointed to the absence of Malawi’s military in this week’s rescue efforts, particularly the lack of helicopters after most affected areas were cut off by washed away roads and destroyed bridges.
“We’ve been totally abandoned. Where’s the military? We don’t need food, we need helicopters to rescue people who are trapped,” said a man in a viral social media video. Malawi’s defence force said it had deployed aircraft to the affected regions.
Guilherme Botelho, emergency project co-ordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières in Blantyre, said: “The situation is very dire. There are many casualties, either wounded, missing or dead, and the numbers will only increase in the coming days.”
African nations secured agreement at last year’s UN COP27 summit for a so-called loss and damage fund to finance mitigation of the ravages of climate change on the continent with the lowest historic carbon emissions. But they remain angered by broken western promises to supply mitigation funding.